Years Later, Indicted Dallas Police Officers Still Haven't Gone to Trial
Dallas police officer Cardan Spencer confronts Bobby Gerald Bennett, who is mentally ill, in a Rylie cul-de-sac in October of 2013.
Three years ago this month, Dallas police officers Bryan Burgess and Michael Puckett were on a late-night patrol in South Dallas when they noticed a man behind Kwick Stop Liquor, later identified as 51-year-old Fred Bradford, riding his bicycle without a helmet and generally looking furtive. Burgess pulled behind Bradford and turned on his emergency lights. Bradford panicked and pedaled away. Burgess gave chase, shadowing Bradford for several blocks until, just after passing beneath Julius Schepps Freeway, bike and car collided. Bradford was taken to the hospital with a broken back and several broken ribs. He died from his injuries three weeks later. It took 18 months, but in October 2014, a grand jury indicted Burgess for manslaughter.
A couple of years earlier, a Dallas cop facing criminal charges for something that happened on duty would have been unheard of. Between 1973, when a Dallas officer shot 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez in the back of his squad car, and April 2014, when officer Amy Wilburn was charged with aggravated assault by a public servant for shooting an unarmed teenager in a car, the criminal justice system hardly touched a Dallas police officer.
But the Burgess indictment played out in a different atmosphere. The Wilburn indictment had ended the drought. Less than two weeks later, a grand jury indicted Cardan Spencer on the same charge for shooting a mentally ill man in Rylie. Dallas Police Chief David Brown, mindful of demands of community activists and social justice reformers, had been handing out harsh discipline to rule-breaking officers and even live-tweeting disciplinary hearings. Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, a week away from his ill-fated face-off with Republican Susan Hawk, had an interest in shoring up his social-justice bona fides. Every police-citizen encounter looked different post-Ferguson.
With three high-profile indictments of on-duty Dallas police officers (and that's not counting Patrick Tuter, the former Garland officer charged with manslaughter in late 2013), the criminal justice system seemed to be changing the way it addressed police use of force.
And then — crickets. None of the cases has gone to trial, nor, looking at case records, do they seem to have progressed much at all.
So, what gives?
The short answer is that Hawk beat Watkins in the fall of 2014. "We had the election in November and then things kind of stopped," says Richard Rogers, who is leading the team defending all three officers.
From a purely political standpoint, Hawk has less incentive to prosecute cops than her predecessor. One of her key backers in her campaign to unseat Watkins was the Dallas Police Association, which lambasted the indictments of Burgess, Wilburn and Spencer.
But Rogers and his law partner Bob Gorsky say the delays have been more bureaucratic than political. There was the normal confusion that inevitably accompanies a change in administration, and the not-so-normal confusion that accompanied Hawk into office when she disappeared for several weeks to deal with a bout of severe depression. Then there was the fact that Bill Wirsyke, Hawk's second-in-command, had recently been a partner with Gorsky and Rogers' law firm.
On March 10, 2015, days before she would fire Wirskye in an apparent fit of paranoia, Hawk filed motions to remove herself from the Spencer and Wilburn cases. "DA Hawk is qualified to act in this cause," the motion said. "Nevertheless, to avoid any potential conflict of interest and even an appearance of impropriety, DA Hawk requests that this court permit her to recuse herself and all of her assistants from the cause."
Then, again, crickets. "If I remember correctly, it took the DA's office many months to get a special prosecutor," Gorsky says. Indeed, Gorsky's memory is fine. The court didn't appoint special prosecutors in the cases — Tom D'Amore for Wilburn, S. Marshall McCallum for Spencer — until mid-November 2015, eight months after the recusal. It took additional time for the new prosecutors, who essentially had to start at square one, to get up to speed on the cases.
All three cases are now progressing, with the Burgess trial set for September 12. Gorsky hasn't seen any evidence in his day-to-day interactions with Hawk's office that she's taken her foot off the gas. "I don't think that her office is going to do anything but aggressively prosecute the cases," he says. (Hawk's spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.)
John Fullwider, co-founder of Mothers Against Police Brutality, is skeptical. He points to the speedy trial of William Porter, one of the Baltimore police officers charged with killing 25-year-old Freddie Gray, as a model for what it looks like when the criminal justice system takes police brutality cases seriously. (Prosecutorial haste has its pitfalls, however. The Porter case ended in a deadlocked jury and a mistrial.)
He also points to the case of Jason Harrison, a mentally ill man who was wielding a screwdriver when he was shot by a Dallas police in 2014. The officer was cleared of wrongdoing, which strikes Fullwider as an injustice. "You have seriously disputed facts, and you have a dead person. Why can't we have a trial?"